On this day in 1789, an angry mob of French revolutionaries ravaged the Bastille in Paris. This medieval fortress symbolized the monarchy's absolute power over the people of France—and was a place where the King would imprison political prisoners at will (without due process). Although only seven prisoners were being held in the fortress, the Storming of the Bastille represents one of the most dramatic early moments in the French Revolution. Today it is celebrated as a foundational moment in the French Republic.
Earlier this summer, I took a course on the French Revolution and I must confess: I am now more perplexed about the events and outcomes of the period than I had been before I took the course! However I do understand that, in the end, France was re-formed as a nation built on The Law (not the privilege of a monarch and the elite 2%—the clergy and the nobility—who had previously enjoyed all the power and paid none of the taxes). The Ancien Régime was (eventually) eliminated, allowing the "other 98%" of Frenchmen to exercise a degree of agency in their nation's governance. But the confusion, the mayhem, the extremism, the shifting alliances and the bloodshed of the Revolution is alarming, even by the current standards of political zealotry (in America and elsewhere).
The French Revolutionary Wars continued through the two reigns of a self-appointed Emperor, the Italian Napoleone Buonaparte. (This is the greatest contradiction: I thought the whole point of the Revolution was to eliminate a monarch!) Historians estimate that over three million people died during the period—killed in fighting and when sent to the guillotine. The streets literally ran with blood. Meanwhile, one slap-dash government was quickly assembled after another—each with its own, new "foundational" document.
Bastille Day remains a very important—and widely celebrated—holiday in France to this day. It is considered "intrinsic" to the French Republic, similar to Independence Day in America. But Bastille Day strikes me as a curious day to elevate, given how little was actually accomplished in the attack (seven prisoners were freed). Bastille Day provides more as a symbol than it does as a strategic accomplishment. Today's celebratory display of military might, rolling along the Champs-Élysées, is embraced with great joyfulness. Little mention is made of the three million who died during the mayhem (the madness!) of the Revolution.
To me, the French Revolution is more like the American Civil War than it is like the American Revolution. The French Revolution was not a war of independence from a foreign overlord. Rather, it was a radical re-invention of how the country was to be conceived—a bloody domestic fight of faction vs. faction, Frenchman against Frenchman. At great cost, France eventually succeeded in fashioning an admirable, modern democratic republic. But, even today, one can see the embers of social discord which occasionally flare-up in France. Ripples of social discontent distort the stately beauty of France. Factions of rebels, and their eager leaders, are never too far away—and always ready to attack "l'establishment."
One prominent "victim" of the Revolution—and in the popular history which followed—was the French Queen, Marie Antoinette. She was married-off to the future French king when she was a child of 14 (after a two year engagement). The marriage arrangement was meant to improve relations between the enemies, France and Austria. She was not a very good student and she lived a highly-cloistered life. But one fact remained: she was Austrian—a stigma which the French people would never overlook. She became a universal object of scorn for the French, which increased when she became Queen at the age of 18. The press delighted in spreading rumors of her promiscuity, treason and self-indulgence. Admittedly, the child did enjoy spending money (which she was given). But the disgusting accusations—of raw sexual perversion and endless indulgence—were certainly amplified to foment a popular rage against her. Her status as a despised Austrian—and a symbol of France's hatred—would follow her to the guillotine at the age of 37. Her lawyers were given less than one hour to prepare her defense. Her execution was a foregone conclusion, considered a necessary "statement" to help legitimize the Revolution. She was humiliated when made to undress under the gaze of her male guards. She was forced to wear a plain white dress to her death (she asked to wear a widow's black dress, as her husband had been executed earlier that year). Her hair was roughly-shorn and she was transported to the guillotine in the back of a cart—a torturous hour of cobblestones, jeers and public humiliation. Nevertheless, she maintained her dignity and even apologized to the executioner, her last words, for stepping on his shoe as she stumbled to the chopping block. There is no record that she ever uttered the words "Let them eat cake." In fact, these words were written by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (in Les Confessions) in 1767, when Marie Antoinette was 11 years old. Nevertheless, the prejudice remains two centuries after her killing.
The French glass flask, shown above, is suited-up in a woven cane surround. A ceramic stopper (with newly-replaced neoprene gasket) finishes the look. Click on the photo above to learn more about it.
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